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How to Become Empowered and Actualize Your Possibilities

How to Become Empowered and Actualize Your Possibilities

The discovery of the self is a lifelong process which takes place between two worlds; internal and external. At first, finding your moral and ethical place in the world—or even your high school—can be overwhelming, being so focused on your internal, adolescent self. But as you absorb and experience new things, your cognitive functions become more cosmopolitan, allowing you to perceive the context of your bubble of reality within The Big Picture. This might make you feel like an insignificant stepper in the “Grand March” of history, but distinguishing the details of your individual identity (i.e. unique circumstances, emotional associations, semantic idiosyncrasies) is the first step to facing life with more confidence and optimism, becoming more spontaneous and ambitious, while actualizing your possibilities.

Do Not Compare Yourself to Others

“Our lives look a lot more interesting when they’re filtered through the sexy Facebook interface. We star in our own movies, we photograph ourselves incessantly, we click the mouse and a machine confirms our sense of mastery.” -Jonathan Franzen

Remember this: Every human being is equal and unique, born into varying circumstances, locations, and times. Facebook—and the rest of social media—is a crude, passive tool for forming and maintaining social connections; while it is handy for travelers and “a more connected world,” developing an online identity can disfigure your real one—becoming more narcissistic, self-critical, or envious. It is unfair to compare your internal life with the “highlight reel” on someone else’s timeline, and you never know what is hidden beneath their surface.

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Respect Your (Real) Friendships

“Even the smallest person can change the course of history.” -J.R.R. Tolkien

Between Tweeting like a celebrity and scanning Netflix in obscurity, your friends will always remind you that your life really does matter—if it doesn’t to you, it does to them. In a way, your friends see you more clearly than you can ever see yourself: have fun, be honest and sympathetic, and express yourself without fear of judgment. Friendship is an ancient and legendary bond: without it, you can forget how incredible, quirky, and valuable your life is.

Learn from the Past, Plan for the Future, but Live in the Present

“You shouldn’t chase after the past or place expectations on the future. What is past is left behind. The future is as yet unreached. Whatever quality is present you clearly see right there, right there.” -Buddha

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While you ruminate on the past or the future, remember that each time you recall a memory, you recreate it: the more you return to certain memories, the more distorted they may be. Regret often exaggerates the magnitude of past mistakes and the fear of future ones. This may prove that emotional stress can cloud your working memory—which strongly correlates to your IQ—and cause your worldview to become pessimistic and vague. You can escape the pressures of another time by accepting and immersing yourself in the present, no matter where you are.

Be Secure Enough to Change

“Maybe the most under-appreciated thing about Steve [Jobs] was that he had the courage to change his mind.” -Tim Cook, Apple CEO

As you stumble onward in your journey, you will find that life is full of contradiction and paradox—and so are you. Though your brain tends to dislike the dissonance produced by conflicting ideas, many of our choices are the lesser of two (or more) evils. No one is perfect, and the heroes among us make the best of their mistakes by learning from them without feeling personally attacked or being hypersensitive to criticism.

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Trust Your Judgment, Act Accordingly

“Centuries of centuries and only in the present do things happen; countless men in the air, on the face of the earth and the sea, and all that really is happening is happening to me…” -Jorge Luis Borges

The Big Picture is impossibly grand and labyrinthine, but if you trust your instincts, your morals, and your experience to guide you, you will find yourself in the right place. The Galileos and Jobses of our time have shown us that if there is no “right way” to do anything. Nothing is true; everything is permitted. And the time is now. One definitive act is much louder (and much rarer) than a thousand vague words.

Links to previous Lifehack articles:
In Be Secure Enough to Change: “the dissonance produced by conflicting ideas

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In Respect Your (Real) Friendships: “ancient and legendary bond

Featured photo credit:  Raised arms man in the summit of mountain via Shutterstock

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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